For the past two years, one of the most persistent and hotly contested questions in Anchorage has been what to do about the number of unlawful homeless encampments cropping up in public spaces. Local officials have been bombarded by disgruntled community groups calling for a solution and in December 2017, the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance that promised to help the community “gain control of our spaces.”
Under the ordinance, residents of illegal homeless encampments have 10 days after receiving an official citation to vacate the premises. But what was promised as a timely solution, has proven to be an ill-fitting Band-Aid affixed to a disproportionately large problem.
“I think of it as swatting flies while leaving the door wide open,” explains Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness Executive Director Brian Wilson.
According to Wilson, slapping the homeless with citations is the first step in a cycle of crime, recidivism and homelessness. His sentiments are echoed on a national scale by organizations like the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC). In 2013, the NHCHC released a quarterly research review indicating that nationally, 25 to 50 percent of the homeless population has a history of incarceration. Additionally, a history of homelessness is 11 times more prevalent among inmates than the general population.
Facing stigmatization, policies barring them from most federal housing assistance programs and challenges finding employment due to criminal records, previously incarcerated individuals often find themselves in temporary shelters or homeless. Once homeless, basic necessities can force them to engage in criminal activities to get by and the cycle of re-arrest, incarceration and homelessness continues.
“There’s a lot of research out there that shows that many of the problems with recidivism can be resolved by having permanent, stable housing options,” says Wilson. “Many of the options available right now require sobriety or have a time limit which just puts people who really need help with housing back at square one. That’s why we are pushing for a Housing First model.”
The Housing First approach views housing as the foundation for stability and enables access to permanent housing without prerequisites or conditions beyond those of a typical renter. Most notably, Housing First does not require people experiencing homelessness to graduate through a series of programs before they can access housing and it does not mandate participation in services in order to retain housing.
Although some may scoff at the idea of housing being unconditionally handed out to convicts, Wilson argues that ultimately, Housing First is more cost-effective.
“There is significant evidence that Housing First decreases costs to shelters and emergency departments. Housing First programs generally cost less than programs that require sobriety or treatment to providing housing. It’s also more expensive to house a person in prison,” says Wilson.
But there are drawbacks to the model. Housing First’s success is predicated on available housing options and right now, Anchorage doesn’t have much to offer. With upwards of 53 percent of all Alaskan prisoners being released to Anchorage, the question of who should win in the housing lottery is tricky. Convicts, victims of domestic violence, runaway teens, homeless families and mentally ill or disabled individuals are all vying for a piece of a meager pie.
“Right now, the time between a person getting accepted into a rapid rehousing program and actually moving in is 99 days but the average length of stay for a person in an emergency shelter is 58 days. We aren’t starting the process when individuals are incarcerated so there’s this long wait where people are paralyzed,” says Wilson. “It’s not an issue of efficiency—we can turn around a request in a day. It’s a capacity issue.”
Things are even more bleak around the state.
Fairbanks Housing and Homelessness Coordinator, Michael Sanders, reports that 42 percent of the city’s available housing is below standard, and an additional 5.6 percent is uninhabitable. But those statistics are drastically better than elsewhere in Alaska. Most of the state has less than one available bed per 1,000 residents seeking year-round emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing.
If Governor Dunleavy’s proposed FY20 budget cuts go through, things are going to get much worse for many of Alaska’s homeless.
The Homeless Assistance Program (HAP) which provides access to homeless prevent supports such as rental emergency assistance, emergency shelter options and the ability to be rapidly rehoused will see a cut of nearly $7-million. The Special Needs Housing Grant (SNHG), a grant that provides housing vouchers will see their operating budget slashed from $1.9-million to a meager $200,000.
“We are working with a challenging group but if you don’t spend your money where its needed, I don’t know where else you’d spend it,” advocates Wilson.